By Charles Moreau Harger in 1892
In 1860, Texas, as it had been for many years before, was the chief producer of livestock, in the Western States. Upon all its widespread ranges were feeding herds by the thousand, and no other industry approached that of cattle-raising in importance or extent. The few hundred thousand cattle of Spanish blood which had been placed there during the state’s life as a Mexican province were multiplied until three and a half million head were estimated as Texas’ belongings. They had been somewhat improved in the breed, but were still wiry, nervous, long-limbed creatures, with slender, branching horns and restless eyes. They could run like deer and were almost as wild.
The peculiarly favorable climate of Texas gave the state almost a monopoly of the business. The pastures were green the year round, and the proximity to market, either at points on the Mississippi River, to which herds from the eastern part of the state could easily be driven, or by water from points on the Gulf, gave a distinct advantage.
Mexico had, in times past, been a valuable consumer, but was now nearly deserted, and the nearer selling-places were able to handle the supply. The fine, hair-like “buffalo grass” that covers the prairies for 400 miles east of the mountains, and wherever found is as nourishing in winter as in summer, flourished in abundance, and the mesquite was not to be despised as a change of diet for the herds.
The outbreak of the Civil War brought upon the ranch owners a peculiar embarrassment of riches. With the Northern market cut off, and Southern business life demoralized, no disposition could be made of the rapidly increasing herds. Occasional fugitive sales along the Mississippi River became almost the only markets. Prices declined, and for a time two to four dollars a head would purchase the best animals on the ranges. Driving northward had not been much practiced, and now, with the sharp skirmishing along the Kansas and Missouri frontier, there was no opportunity to begin it. Stock was neglected as valueless. Men were “cattle-poor,” and it was a time of discouragement to those who had looked for fortunes in their enterprises.
In 1865 and 1866 the ranch owners determined to seek Northern markets at any cost, and thousands of animals were massed in the northeast portion of the state preparatory to driving to Missouri railroad stations. The summer of 1866 saw this movement begin. Fully 270,000 head were pushed northward. There was little regularity in the courses taken. The Rocky Bluffs Ford, on the Red River, was the starting place for many. Up the Kinishi Valley, across the plains to Fort Smith, Arkansas, then, with a circuitous route among the Ozarks, across southeastern Missouri – that was the line most followed.
But, a new danger threatened. There had ensconced themselves among the wilder regions of southern Missouri River and northern Arkansas River, bands of outlaws, legitimate successors to the guerrillas of Civil War days, who by mere force of advantageous position, levied unmerciful tribute upon all drovers passing through their territory. The tax was an oppressive one, and no matter how shrewd were the movements of the herders, the unwieldy masses of animals were sure to be detected. Should the demands of the outlaws not be acceded to, the drover was in many instances subjected to bodily punishment. At the same time, one of the persecutors would ride furiously at the herd, swinging a colored blanket. The timed beeves, bewildered by the unwanted sight, would scurry in every direction, becoming more frightened as they ran until the herd would be scattered over miles of territory. Days and weeks of search on the part of the cowboys, as the herders who assisted the drover were called, would serve to secure only a portion of the lot.
Fear of Spanish fever was made the pretext for other delays, while the hostility of the Cherokee Indians in the northeastern part of the Indian Territory shut off a more westerly route to avoid the bandits. Many heads of cattle were lost on the way by reason of the toilsome track through the Ozark Mountains, and the remainder reached markets in St. Louis and Sedalia in poor condition and brought low prices. The year’s drive was discouraging and unprofitable to the Texas cattle barons and many plans were considered for the disposition of the constantly growing surplus. Northern prices for good stock were flattering; the capital was ready for investment in the businesses; nothing was needed but an outlet for the abundance of beef.
The solution to the problem confronting the cattle raisers came through the construction of the railroads across Kansas. In 1867 the old Kansas Pacific Railroad, now the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific, was being built from Kansas City along the valley of the Kansas River due west across the state.
It had reached halfway from the Missouri River to the mountains before the possibilities it offered became apparent. The country traversed was but sparsely settled; the towns consisted for the most part of a few rude cabins, including the inevitable saloon. But the tide of emigration was pushing westward, and there was a magnificent empire for it to conquer.
One of the first comers was an Illinois stock-dealer, Joseph G. McCoy, to whom is due the honor of originating the Kansas and Texas cattle trails. He was familiar with the situation in the Lone Star State, and conceived the idea of forming a great shipping point on the new railroad. He was encouraged by the officials and arrangements were made for the location of the proper yards at Abilene, Kansas, a station 165 miles from Kansas City, situated in the midst of a richly-grassed prairie section, admirably adapted for grazing grounds of incoming herds. The town had less than a dozen houses, and was within less than 30 miles of the end of the road, as then completed. Yards were built and steps were taken to induce the cattlemen to make this a point from which to ship their herds.
A single horseman was dispatched on a lonely ride across Indian-infested prairies to send every herd he could encounter to the new shipping place. He went southwest, crossing the Arkansas River near the site of the present city of Wichita, Kansas and then into the Indian Territory. It was some time before he found any of the straggling herds, and when he did he could with difficulty induce the drovers to believe that they would be treated with respect and fairness, so used were they to the violence of the old course. However, many were convinced, and a herd of nearly 2000 head, belonging to some Californians, was the first to break the northern end of a trail over which so many million restless hoofs were destined to travel. About 36,000 cattle, one percent of Texas’ supply, reaching Abilene that season, and every drover went back well pleased with the facilities afforded. The first shipment from Abilene was made September 5, 1867, and was celebrated by an excursion of Illinois stock dealers coming in a special train to see the start. However, money was lost on the year’s business, both from damage to the droves by floods and Indian raids, and because of the prejudice in the East against Texas beef, then considered by many too wild for use.
The movement was started, and 1868 saw a general friendliness for the new market among Texas stock owners, and a northward drive that exceeded 75,000 head. But the succeeding year, 1869, showed a greater increase, and 160,000 cattle came tramping up like a horned army from the ranches of the South.
By this time, well-defined trails had been located, and for two decades those trunk-lines connecting the great producing and consuming points held their supremacy. The most famous of these was the “Chisholm Trail.” It was named after Jesse Chisholm, an eccentric frontier stockman, who was the first to drive over it. Chisholm lived at Paris, Texas, was a bachelor, and had many thousand head of cattle on the ranges in the southern part of the State.
There was through Texas, reaching down from the Red River, the irregular “Southern Texas Trail,” ending at the north near Cooke County. From the Red River, Chisholm broke the way to Kansas, riding ahead of his herd and selecting what seemed the most favorable route. He forded the Red River near the mouth of Mud Creek, followed that stream to its head, kept northwest to Wild Horse Creek, to the west of Signal Mountains, and crossed the Washita at Elm Spring. Due north took him to the Canadian River, which, after leaving, he soon struck the Kingfisher Creek Valley. This was followed to the Cimarron River. Touching the head of Black Bear and Bluff Creeks, its next considerable stream was the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River, which was crossed at Sewell’s Ranch. Sewell was a Government post-trader, who was a favorite with the Indians and had two large ranches in the Territory.
Coming into Kansas near Caldwell, the course was a little east of north, crossing the Arkansas River near Wichita. Here was the famous ‘‘First and Last Chance saloon, with its sign-board facing two ways to attract the cowboys coming up across the Territory and those returning from market. Then the trail turned northeasterly, striking Newton, and so on over the divide between the Smoky Hill River and the Arkansas River to the prairies south of Abilene. Following Chisholm’s track came thousands of herds, and the trail became a notable course.
From 200 to 400, beaten into the bare earth it reached over hill and through the valley for over 600 miles (including its southern extension), a chocolate band amid the green prairies, uniting the North and South.
As the marching hoofs wore it down and the wind blew and the waters washed the earth away it became lower than the surrounding country and was flanked by little banks of sand, drifted there by the wind. Bleaching skulls and skeletons of weary brutes who had perished on the journey gleamed along its borders, and here and there was a low mound showing where some cowboy had literally “died with his boots on.” Occasionally, a dilapidated wagon-frame told of a break-down, and spotting the emerald reaches on either side were the barren circle-like “bedding grounds,” each a record that a great herd had there spent a night. The wealth of an empire passed over the trail, leaving its mark for decades to come.
Dividing honors with the Chisholm Trail was the “Old Shawnee Trail” This led to the lesser Northern shipping-point, opened about the same time as Abilene — Baxter Springs. This city was on the then just completed Fort Scott & Gulf Railroad, and was located in the southeastern corner of Kansas. The trail left the Red River near Snivel’s Bend, about 40 miles east of the starting point of the older course, and ran nearly parallel with its rival for about 100 miles.
Here was a connecting trail running into the Chisholm at Elm Spring. The Shawnee Trail then bore northeasterly on the north side of the Shawnee Hills, crossed the Canadian and North Canadian Rivers near the Sac and Fox Agency, then passing through the Creek reservation and forded the Arkansas River west of Forts Davis and Gibson. Turning more easterly, it passed west of Vinita and so on to Baxter Springs. This trail, called from its passing through the Shawnee Indian country, became as well worn as the older one and was equally well-known. Both were barren as city streets and were marked by the whitening bones of four-footed travelers who had died on their weary journey.
Between the two main trails was the “Middle” or “West Shawnee Trail,” leaving its namesake near the Canadian River and going nearly due north until it struck the Arkansas River, up which valley it followed into Kansas. It then ran up the Whitewater Valley, then north and east, crossing the Cottonwood River and along the Neosho and Clark’s Creek valleys, ending at Junction City, Kansas, 25 miles east of Abilene. In later years, the Chisholm Trail gave off a western shoot which left it near Elm Spring, and passing near Fort Reno, Oklahoma, went on northwest into western Kansas, striking Dodge City on the Arkansas River and also northeast to Ellsworth, on the Smoky Hill River. With the settling up of the country, cattle were driven farther and farther west, until this “Western Chisholm Trail” came to be the chief thoroughfare for herds detained either for market directly or for maturing in the bracing air and pastures of Wyoming and Montana. Individual drovers often varied their course from the beaten roads, but for the most part, the traffic of the cattle days followed the greater lines as the bulk of commercial shipments was made over a few prominent railroads.
Along the trails, ranches were started, where lands could be secured on either side suitable for the purpose, and northern Texas, southern and western Kansas and later on, portions of the Indian Territory, rivaled the Gulf region in the production of marketable animals.
The number of cattle reaching Abilene in 1870 bounded to 300,000, and almost a continuous line of bovine travelers was pouring over the Chisholm Trail. In order to facilitate the herds’ movements, surveyors were sent out to straighten the trail from the point where it entered Kansas to the shipping station. Fresh mounds of earth were thrown up to mark the route, and the drovers found considerable saving in distance. They spread the news of the efforts being made to accommodate the cattlemen, and the Texas ranch owners, appreciating these advantages as well as the rapidly increasing prices of stock in the Eastern markets, prepared to send forward still greater supplies.
The ranches were, for the most part, in southern and southwestern Texas, and the hundreds of young men who, at the close of the Civil War had sought fortune in the far Southwest, were just coming into a position to put some of their salable stock on the market. In 1871 nearly a million cattle were driven north. Six hundred thousand came to Abilene alone, while Baxter Springs and Junction City received half as many. For miles around the chief shipping points the stock was herded awaiting a chance to sell or ship. From any knoll could be seen thousands of sleek beeves, their branching horns glistening in the sunlight and their herders watchfully riding in the distance. Several counties of central Kansas were practically turned into cattle yards, and it seemed that the industry would soon absorb the energies of the entire state.
But it was the height of the wave. Prices fell off, wet weather and cold winds injured the cattle’s condition, and the so-called Spanish fever, always a terror to the Northerners, and which seemed ineradicable from the Texas cattle’s blood, was causing more trouble than usual The herds were held on the grazing grounds until fall, in the hope of better prices, but to no purpose. Finally, shipping was stopped entirely, and over 300,000 cattle were unsold. Every year there had been some carried over, either because they could not be sold, or as has been so general in late years, to fatten on the Northern corn; but this number was unprecedented. The drovers took their stock westward to the buffalo grass region, it being impossible to procure hay and corn in central Kansas for the great throng.
At the beginning of winter of 1871-72 came a storm of sleet, putting an icy coat over the sod, and thousands of cattle and hundreds of horses died of cold and starvation. Some of the carcasses were skinned, but the majority were left for food for the wolves. About 100,000 hides were shipped from three stations after the storm. The winter was severe throughout, and it was estimated that less than 50,000 cattle lived through it. From herds of 60,000-70,000, only a few hundred survived. Like other booms in which the West has overreached itself, this one had its collapse.
Abilene’s prestige was gone. Ellsworth, forty miles further west, became the shipping point on the Kansas Pacific. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, being nearly completed through the southern portion of the state, began to compete for the trade. Newton, where the road crossed the trail to Abilene, stopped many of the herds, and with Ellsworth, divided the claim to the title Abilene had held for several years, “The wickedest town in the West.”
This description was afterward appropriated by Dodge City, and then, with the opening of the mining regions of Colorado, passed from the state and became the property of Leadville, and Deadwood, South Dakota. It was of the new shipping point that another picturesque saying became popular, “There is no Sunday west of Newton and no God west of Pueblo.” Wichita, too, claimed attention from the drovers, and 80,000 head went from there in 1872, while three times as many were shipped from the other towns combined. In 1873, 450,000 head were shipped from Kansas, and then again came a back-set in prices and weather conditions, but not equal to that of two years previous.
Soon after, Dodge City, on the Chisholm Trail’s western offshoot to Ellsworth, being reached by the Santa Fe Railroad, took the more northern station’s trade as Newton had absorbed Abilene’s, and for 12 years was the acknowledged shipping center for Texas cattle in the state. While the drives never reached such proportions as in 1871, they continued to be extensive until the building of the railroads across the Indian Territory and the establishment of shipping points in Texas itself. Even then, they did not wholly cease, and many thousand head came straggling across the line each year, being marketed for Dodge City, Wichita, or other railroad points.
The opening of Oklahoma, in 1890, made another barrier, however, and the season of 1891 saw the last of the bovine exodus that, through more than two decades, had furnished employment and profit for a large portion of the West’s workers. Neither advantage nor convenience was now found in that method of marketing, and henceforth, the only herds to wind their slow length over the once populous thoroughfares would be the young stock taken leisurely through the season from the warm climate of the Gulf region up northwesterly, skirting the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, to reach, after a six months’ journey, the highland feeding grounds of Wyoming and Montana. A year or two later they would go to market, sturdy and hard – fleshed beeves, ready for the export trade.
The task of the drover and his assistant cowboys in getting the herds from the Southern ranches to the Northern shipping points was one involving both skill and daring. Only a man of unflinching courage and quick movement could succeed in handling animals whose characteristics were rather those of the wild beast than of the creature bred for the sustenance of man. The Texas steer is no respecter of persons. For the man on horseback, he had a wholesome fear; he seemed to have something of the savage’s conceit that the combination is irresistible. Separately, neither man nor horse has any more chance in a herd fresh from the range than among so many wolves or jackals. With their long, sharp-pointed horns these steers rendered an enemy with ease, and the fights among themselves have all the ferociousness of contests in the jungle.
The first contact between the cowboys and the cattle was at the annual round-up when the whole territory, over which the owner’s herds range is gone over and the cattle gathered for branding. The offspring were given the mark of the mother, and the ranch owner possesses a brand as exclusively as does a manufacturer a trade-mark. After the young have been lassoed, held, and had their flesh burned with the red-hot branding-iron, leaving a scar in the form of a letter, figure, or combination design that will last for life, they are turned loose and no human hand is laid on them until they become “beeves,” that is, four years old and ready for market. The cowboys lived in cabins near the water-courses and watched the stock from day to day, sometimes having the herds 10 or 20 miles away. Should any “mavericks,” that is, unbranded stock over one-year-old, get with the herd, they become the property of the person branding them, hence no inconsiderable addition was frequently made to a herd by this means.
The cattle barons in the palmy days of the cattle trade lived like princes. They did not reside on the ranch, but in some of the Texas cities, or spent their time in luxurious traveling while their wealth increased at a ratio beyond their capacity for spending it. Many of them did not know how many cattle they owned.
Their career was one of extravagance and display. Diamonds, carriages, and banquets made their life brilliant while it lasted. When, in the later 1870’s and the early part of the decade following, their power and wealth were at the highest point, they practically owned the Lone Star State. From No Man’s Land (present-day Oklahoma Panhandle) to El Paso, Texas, their cattle grazed; prices were high and capital was flowing in for investment. But the agriculturist came, too, and farms drove out the ranches.
The first owners did not always send the cattle to market. Drovers made a business of going from ranch to ranch and purchasing the marketable beeves. “Dogies,” “sea-lions,” and “longhorns” were favorite nicknames for the cattle, and size, as well as title, depended on the latitude. The southern Texas stock was smaller, and from 4000-6000 were driven at a time. Of northern Texas stock, 1500 to 3000 made a good-sized “drive.”
The drover secured, besides camp equipage and eatables, about eight men to 1,000 cattle as drivers, and from six to ten horses to the man, according to the quality of the equines. After 1883-84, when Indians were less dangerous and fewer herds were on the trails, four to six men to 1000 head were considered sufficient. Having “cut-out” the cattle one by one with lassoes (long rawhide ropes attached to the cowboys’ saddles and thrown with great accuracy by the riders), the steers and cows all received a “road brand,” a supplementary mark to prevent confusion on the way to market. All was then ready for the long march.
Spring was the usual starting time, and during the seasons of the large drives — May, June, July, and August, saw almost a solid procession passing over the great trails. So near were the herds that the drivers could hear one another urging along the stock, and frequently, even the utmost care could not prevent two companies stampeding together, entailing a loss of much time and labor in separating them.
Once started, it was remarkable the orderly manner in which a herd took its way across the plains. A herd of a thousand beeves would string out to a length of two miles, and a larger one still longer. It made a picturesque sight. The leaders were flanked by cowboys on wiry Texas ponies, riding at ease in great saddles with high backs and pommels. At regular distances were other riders, and the progress of the cavalcade was not unlike that of an army on a march. There was an army-like regularity about the cattle’s movements, too. The leaders seemed always to be specially fitted for the place, and the same ones would be found in the front rank throughout the trip, while others retained their relative positions in the herd day after day.
At the start, there was hard-driving, 20-30 miles a day, until the animals were thoroughly wearied. After that, 12-15 miles was considered a good day’s drive, thus extending the journey over 40 to 100 days. The daily program was as regular as that of a regiment on the march. From morning until noon, the cattle were allowed to graze in the direction of their destination, watched by the cowboys in relays. The cattle, by this time, were uneasy and were turned into the trail and walked steadily forward eight or ten miles, when, at early twilight, they were halted for another graze. As darkness came on, they were gathered closer and closer into a compact mass by the cowboys riding steadily in constantly lessening circles around them, until at last, the brutes lay down, chewing their cuds and resting from the day’s trip. Near midnight they would usually get up, stand a while and then lie down again, having changed sides. At this time, extra care was necessary to keep them from aimlessly wandering off in the darkness. Sitting on their ponies, or riding slowly round and round their reclining charges, the cowboys passed the night on sentinel duty, relieving one another at stated hours.
When skies were clear and the air bracing, the task of cattle driving was a pleasant and healthful one. But there came rainy days, when the cattle were restless, and when it was anything but enjoyable riding through the steady downpour. Then especially were the nights wearisome, and the cattle were ready at any time to stampede.
No one could tell what caused a stampede, any more than one can tell the reason of the strange panics that attack human gatherings at times. A flash of lightning, a crackling stick, a wolf’s howl, little things in themselves, but in a moment, every horned head was lifted, and the mass of hair and horns, with fierce, frightened eyes gleaming like thousands of emeralds, was off. Recklessly, blindly, in whatever direction fancy led them, they went, over a bluff or into a morass, it mattered not, and fleet were the horses that could keep abreast of the leaders. But some could do it, and lashing their ponies to their best gait the cowboys followed at break-neck speed. Getting one side of the leaders the effort was to turn them, a little at first, then more and more, until the circumference of a great circle was being described.
The cattle behind blindly followed, and soon the front-rear joined and “milling” commenced. Like a mighty mill-stone, round and round the bewildered creatures raced until they were wearied out or recovered from their fright.
To stop the herd from milling, after a stampede or when in the cattle yards at the end of the trip, was a necessary but difficult task. As in a stampede, it was death to an animal who failed to keep up with his comrades, for in a moment his carcass would be flattened by thousands of trampling hoofs. The human voice seemed the most powerful influence that could be used to affect the brutes, force being entirely out of the question. As soon as the “milling” began the cowboys began to sing. It mattered not what so long as there was music to it, and it was not uncommon to hear some profane and heartless bully doling out camp-meeting hymns to soothe the ruffled spirits of a herd of Texas steers, a use which might have astonished the fathers and mothers of the churches “back in God’s country,” could they have known of it.
A stampede always meant a loss and rendered the herd more likely to be again panic-stricken. Certain hysterical leaders were frequently shot because of their influence on the remainder of the column. Another danger was that of the mingling of two herds; while in the earlier days, the presence of buffalo was a decided peril. A herd of buffalo roaring and tearing its way across the plain was almost certain to cause a panic, if within hearing, and outriders were necessary to watch for these enemies and turn their course from the trail. Besides, marauding Indians were always to be feared, and many a skirmish was had between the cowboys and the Native Americans. An understanding with the chiefs was, however, usually sufficient to ensure safety. Thus accompanied by incidents that brought into play all the strength and strategy of their guards, the horned host moved on. Rivers were crossed by swimming in the same order that had been followed on land.
Reaching the outskirts of the shipping-station, the herd was held on the plains until the drover effected a sale or secured cars for shipment. Then the animals were driven into the stockades, dragged or coaxed into the cars, and were sent off to meet their fate in the great packing-houses. The journey had been a strange one to them, often accompanied by savage cruelties and the hands of heartless drivers, and the end of the trip with close confinement of yard and car, the first they had ever known, was strangest of all.
With the loading of the cattle came the “paying off” and the cowboy’s brief vacation before returning to another year’s round of hard work and coarse fare. It was not, perhaps, to be expected that after nearly a twelvemonth of life on the prairies he should spend his outing in quiet and dignity. And seldom did he. The cattle towns catered to his worst passions, and saloons and dance-houses flourished with startling exuberance. Gambling ran riot, and quarrels ending in murder were of frequent occurrence. During the height of the season might was the only law, and if occasionally a marshal was found, like William Hickok, the original Wild Bill, who could rule an Abilene in its rudest period, it was because he was quicker with the revolver and more daring than even the cowboys themselves.
Much glamour and romance have been thrown around the figure of the cowboy. He was not the dashing and chivalric hero of the burlesque stage, in gorgeous sombrero and sash, nor was he the drunken, fighting terror of the dime of character that his business induced. The cowboy lived a hard life. For months he never saw a bed, nor slept beneath a roof. He seldom had access to a newspaper or book and had none of society’s advantages to lift him to higher things. The roughest of the West’s immigrants, as well as many Mexicans, drifted into the business because of its excitement and good wages, and this class, by its excesses, gave the world its standard for all. With the influences of actual contact with bucking bronco ponies and ferocious Texas steers, themselves by no means elevating, added to the temptations of the cattle towns, all the worst in the herder’s nature was sure to be brought out. But hundreds of cowboys were sons of Christian parents, and when they had made a start in life settled down at last as good citizens of the great West they had helped to develop.
The cowboy with his white, wide-brimmed hat, his long leather cattle whip, his lariat, and his clanking spurs is a thing of the past. The great Texas ranches are enclosed with barbed wire fences, and a genuine Texas steer would attract almost as much attention in the old cattle towns as a llama. Abilene, Ellsworth, Newton, and Dodge City are busy little cities surrounded by rich farming communities and with churches, schools, electric lights, and other evidence of modern civilization. No trace of the old life remains, except some weather-stained and dilapidated buildings, pointed out to the stranger as having been saloons where Wild Tom, Texas Sam, or other strangely named characters, killed men unnumbered “during the cattle days.”
The cattle trails were in a measure educative. They brought the north and south of the Mississippi Valley into close business relations, a condition which was to the advantage of both. But the life that surrounded them could not endure. The homes of thousands of settlers have preempted the grazing grounds. Railroads are ten times more numerous than were the trails, and like the cavalier, the troubadour, the Puritan, and the “Forty-niner,” the cowboy and his attendant life have become but figures in history.
Author and Notes: Cattle Trails of the Prairies, written by Charles Moreau Harger in 1892 appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 6, June 1892; Charles Scribner’s Sons; New York, NY. The article is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarification, corrections, and ease of the modern reader.